CJ Stander interview: ‘I need to play the best game of my life against Toulon ’
The transition from SA has not been easy, but the Munster flanker is nothing if not determined
South African CJ Stander in full flight: “Munster gave me a chance, and I came here to play for Munster and then the possibility of one day playing for Ireland popped up.” Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Three weeks ago, CJ Stander sat on the bench for the fifth time in the Heineken Cup. He expected to maybe get 15 minutes or so. Less than 20 minutes into the match, Peter O’Mahony’s misfortune meant Stander had more than an hour on the pitch and he made sure it was a 24th birthday to remember.
It wasn’t just his try. He contrived to make light of O’Mahony’s loss, which is extraordinary in itself, and was a deserving Man of the Match. Nor was it the seven carries or the eight tackles. His corner flagging helped Simon Zebo deny Yoann Huget a try. Then, after Toulouse scored through Hosea and threatened a fightback, Stander poached for a turnover penalty. He also muscularly ripped the ball from Fickou in the tackle in the build-up to Zebo’s late try. He seemed to be everywhere.
“Coming off the bench, you think you might get 15 minutes but I got 62 minutes and it was great, a great atmosphere,” he said at the outset of a half-hour interview which found him in a typically good mood.
“Thomond Park was flying. It was great running on to that pitch and getting all that energy off the crowd,” he says. “Thomond Park is just something else. You run out and you just see red all over the place and people are singing songs, like Stand Up And Fight , and you think, ‘this is goosebump stuff’. These are the things you write back home about.”
Stander has good reason to have a strong affinity with Thomond Park. He arrived on October 30th last year and after a debut off the bench against the Scarlets hit the ground running with a two-try, Man of the Match performance in his first start on December 1st at the Limerick venue. But his season almost immediately went to ground, not helped by suffering a broken finger in that game which sidelined him for a month.
He’s not going to lie, Coming from abroad and only making seven appearances, four off the bench, while being rerouted to Munster’s B&I Cup campaign as Munster felt compelled to make additions to their Heineken Cup squad at prop and wing because of injuries, made it a tough first season.
Yet proof of things improving was Stander’s decision to sign a new two-year deal last January, despite interest from at least one French club which is evidence not only of his loyalty but perhaps also his desire to qualify and play for Ireland.
“If someone asked me near the end of last season I’d probably played about two games for Munster. And I may have thought of maybe moving on, but the coaches and players kept encouraging me.”
As Bryan Habana said earlier in the week, such is the conveyor belt of talent coming through that players can easily get lost in the system. And especially with loose forwards. Nonetheless, to give up on his boyhood dream of playing for the Springboks at 22 and start a new career and a new life abroad was a brave decision.
“Yea, it was a big decision. My fiancee [now his wife, Jean-Marie Neethling] and myself sat down and said: ‘what’s my future plans. And where am I going to be in the next 10 years?’ Then Munster came along and said they wanted to sign me. I was sitting on the [Bulls] bench and they gave me a chance, and I’m grateful for that.”
One imagines he had easier conversations with his family. His father Jannie had played on the wing for the South Western Districts. “He’s a big Blue Bulls supporter, and he’s also a big Springbok supporter. I sat down with him and said: ‘There’s about 20 guys in front of me and Munster are giving me a chance.’ Playing for Ireland wasn’t even in the picture then. I just wanted to go overseas. He said: ‘I will support you full on. You go and do your best’.”
Stander is not the first, nor will he be the last, South African rugby player to use his sport to travel and become a dual citizen. There are logistical benefits